Archive for April, 2009

Maggie’s Legislative Update for April 16, 2009

Posted by quinn on April 16, 2009  |   Comments Off on Maggie’s Legislative Update for April 16, 2009

Friends,

As usual, the Maryland General Assembly’s legislative session stretched right up until the final moments of Sine Die, when the strike of midnight obliged us to call it a day and tally our wins and losses.

One of the most significant issues of the session was addressed in the eleventh-hour compromise that allowed Maryland to pass a law bringing us into compliance with the federal Real ID guidelines. House Bill 387 originally prohibited the granting of a driver’s license to someone who could not prove “lawful presence” in the state. A number of you contacted me to convey your opposition to such a provision because many U.S. citizens, specifically the poor and elderly, do not have documents to meet such a requirement. Additionally, many of you cited safety concerns regarding the increased number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers it will put on the road. In response, we in the House were able to amend the bill in order to formulate two different sets of license requirements, one which required proof of lawful presence and enabled one to acquire a fully federally compliant license (one that could be used for federal purposes such as boarding an airplane), and one which did not require such proof and which would be labeled “not federally compliant.” When the differences between our bill and the Senate bill that followed HB 387’s original language were ironed out, the result was a system in which licensee’s without proof of lawful presence would be limited to renewing their licenses just once, and all of those licenses would then expire no later than July 1st, 2015. This is, of course, a compromise that makes neither side completely happy, but does manage to resolve the problem of meeting the deadline for federal compliance, and hence keeps our Maryland licenses from becoming useless for federal purposes.

Another late-considered issue this session dealt with Baltimore City’s Pimlico racetrack. The responsibility of considering and moving the late-introduced bill to preserve the Preakness Stakes in Maryland fell to my own Environmental Matters Committee (along with the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee). The General Assembly ultimately passed the measure, giving the State the authorization to acquire by eminent domain the Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks, the Bowie Race Course Training Center, and the name, copyrights, trademarks, contracts, and horse racing events that are associated with the Preakness Stakes. The Preakness is a long-standing tradition in Maryland and Baltimore City, and I don’t have to tell you how important it is to preserve both that tradition and the economic opportunities that come with it.

Like the Preakness Bill, a number of other very substantial bills came through Environmental Matters. This was a productive, exciting session, and a lot of good work product came out of Annapolis, but I’m particularly proud of what my own Environmental Matters Committee did on behalf of the State. What follows is a run-down of the most notable bill that came through our hearing room.

In the area of Motor Vehicles and Transportation, many of you are aware that we passed House Bill 72, the Delegate John Arnick Electronic Communications Traffic Safety Act, which prohibits a person from using a text messaging device to write or send a text message while operating a motor vehicle, with the exception of contacting 9-1-1. We also passed Senate Bill 277, which as I’ve mentioned in the most recent legislative update, authorizes the use of speed cameras in work and school zones in all counties and municipalities in the State. And because there has been heightened concern regarding the safety of young drivers on the road, House Bill 303 has increased the minimum age at which a provisional driver’s license can be obtained to 16 years and 6 months (also increasing the minimum age for an original driver’s license to 18 years), altered the period after which the holder of a learner’s instructional permit may take their driver’s examinations, and now requires the Motor Vehicle Administration to cancel the driver’s license of a minor if the cosigner on the minor’s application for the license requests it.

In the area of Housing and Real Property, a number of bills were passed dealing with the rules governing Condominium and Homeowners Associations. House Bill 137 – the Home Financial Accountability Act of 2009 – expands the rights of Homeowner Association members and their designated agents to inspect and copy records of the association, and further limits the ability of an association to withhold information it deems private. House Bills 552 and 553 will alter and restrict the circumstances under which boards of directors for homeowner associations and condominiums can hold closed meetings. And House Bill 667 establishes the procedure for the transition of control of a condominium or homeowners association from a developer to its proper governing body.

Lastly in regard to Housing and Real Property, and unrelated to condominiums and homeowners associations, we passed House Bill 776, which will help tenants whose buildings have been foreclosed upon by requiring written notice to all tenants both in preparation for the foreclosure sale, in the direct lead-up to the sale, and after the judgment awarding possession to a new owner.

Bills dealing with the environment, natural resources, and land use were very prominent in this legislative session, and as such, they represent some of the work product for which the Environmental Matters Committee can be most proud.

A trifecta of bills dealing with improving the State’s Smart Growth program were passed. House Bill 294 authorizes local jurisdictions to establish transfer of development rights programs within Priority Funding Areas (PFAs), and to purchase land for public facilities in PFAs. The bill specifies that proceeds from the sale of these development rights must be used for specified land acquisition and facility construction in the PFA, and allows funds to be allocated for projects outside PFAs under certain conditions, such as when the project is required to protect public health or safety. HB 295 establishes annual reporting requirements for local planning commissions to their local legislative bodies, requiring them to provide information regarding measures and indicators of Smart Growth, and state which ordinances or regulations were adopted or changed to implement the State’s planning visions. House Bill 297, as I mentioned in the most recent update, legislatively reverses the Terrapin Run Appeals Court decision so that county comprehensive planning documents can more effectively guide growth and development in the State. It clarifies the idea that local government actions be “consistent with” the comprehensive plans, and requires members of the local jurisdiction’s planning commissions and boards of appeals complete an educational course within six months of being appointed.

We also passed House Bill 315 – the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act – which picks up where the Global Warming Solutions bill of last year’s session left off (a bill that was unfortunately killed in the session’s last hours). Recognizing the damage that global warming phenomena can wreak, particularly in States like Maryland with extensive shorelines, it requires the State to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 2006 levels by 2020, and requires the State to develop and adopt a plan, adopt regulations, and implement programs to meet this goal.

House Bill 609, Chesapeake Bay Phosphorous Reduction Act of 2009, now requires that lawn care fertilizer manufacturers must reduce the amount of phosphoric acid resulting from the application of their products in Maryland by 50% from 2006 levels by the spring of 2011, and further, manufacturers who begin to sell or distribute certain fertilizers on or after April 1, 2010 may not exceed an average of 1.5% phosphoric acid content. After the 2011 deadline, it will also prohibit lawn fertilizers with more than 5% phosphoric acid content from being labeled for use on established lawns. Following similar legislation that has been enacted in Minnesota and Florida, seed starter fertilizer for use on new lawns or turf will be exempted. Addressing the problem of phosphorous in the Chesapeake is vital to the Bay’s health, and this is a great step forward toward more responsible stewardship of our greatest resource.

Another step in that direction was taken in our passage of Senate Bill 554, the Chesapeake Bay Nitrogen Reduction Act of 2009, which as I mentioned in the last legislative update, reduces nitrogen leakage into the Chesapeake Bay by requiring any new septic systems (or upgrades of failing ones) to make use of the best available technology for nitrogen removal. Nitrogen is arguably the most damaging pollutant in our Bay, and with the use of Bay Restoration Funds to help offset the costs of this new technology (especially for low- or middle-income families), we can say that the passage of this bill has managed to address that danger in an effective, responsible manner.

A number of the bills I’ve discussed deal with tweaking or strengthening critical regulations to protect our environment, and one of the most important bills that we passed will help safeguard and guarantee that regulatory process: House Bill 1569, the Standing Bill. This bill will enable associations and individuals to gain standing in State court to challenge the issuance or denial of certain permits and licenses, and particularly to challenge the issuance of a variance for development activity in the buffer of the Critical Areas, which are granted by local Critical Area programs. Previously under Maryland law, associations did not have standing in State court, and had to go to federal court to challenge a permit. This will help ensure that the regulations put in place by the State are enforced, with watchdog groups and individuals making sure that exceptions are granted only with good reason.

Lastly, I want to mention two wins for Baltimore City. One is the passage of Senate Bill 263, which will allow Program Open Space funds to be used for building a variety of indoor recreational projects, such as indoor aquatic centers, community centers, golf course buildings, tennis facilities, and nature centers. This had been the case previously, but because of recent questions about whether such projects met the legal requirements for the use of Program Open Space funds, this bill was necessary to keep POS money available. Without the passage of this bill, many worthwhile facilities in urban areas like Baltimore City would have been disqualified from consideration. And speaking of indoor aquatic centers, I’m proud to say that the General Assembly amended into the capital budget $125,000 for the renovation of the 43rd District’s League for People with Disabilities swimming pool, a great facility in our community.

It has been a productive session, and I was glad to hear from so many of you about the issues and legislation that concerned you. I hope to see you and speak with you during the interim, and wish you well in the months to come.

Maggie

Maggie’s Legislative Update for April 12, 2009

Posted by quinn on April 12, 2009  |   Comments Off on Maggie’s Legislative Update for April 12, 2009

Friends,

Midnight on Monday the 13th of April rapidly approaches, and with it “Sine Die” and the end of the legislative session for 2009. A large number of important bills have come before the House of Delegates for consideration, and here are a few of the most important from each standing House committee.

Some of the most significant bills we’ve considered (and which I have talked to you about in previous Legislative Updates) have come through the House Judiciary Committee. I’ve talked about my relative disappointment concerning the General Assembly’s efforts to repeal the death penalty and the two bills aiming to do so – House Bill 316 and Senate Bill 279 – but while we can’t say that capital punishment has been abolished in Maryland, we can say that the requirements Maryland has put in place for its application are the strictest and most accurate in the nation. This is something for which Marylanders can be proud – a demonstrable move in the direction of just sentencing, and a firm foundation upon which to build further efforts in the quest for repeal.

The Judiciary Committee also looked at bills that were introduced to address the revelation of inappropriate surveillance of peaceful advocacy groups by the State Police. This was another effort that required compromise in order to pass. House Bill 182, the bill which many of you wrote to me in support of (and which I sponsored) was ultimately to receive an unfavorable report in Judiciary, but a similar bill, House Bill 311, was reported favorably, and was further amended to include many of the provisions originally found in H.B. 182.

A fair amount of press surrounded two other bills heard in the Judiciary Committee, House Bills 296 and 302, which will require that people who have temporary or final protective orders placed upon them surrender any guns in their possession to local law enforcement for the duration of those orders. Both of these Administration bills have passed both chambers. This is great news for public safety, and will take the potentially lethal influence of firearms out of the already tragic circumstances of domestic violence and intimidation.

In the Appropriations Committee, Senate Bill 264, the “Fair Share Act,” is still under consideration after passing the Senate. As originally drafted, the bill would authorize state employee unions to negotiate and collect a “fair-share” fee from non-members who, while not paying union dues, nevertheless benefit from union representation. Any fees negotiated would have to be subsequently ratified in a vote by the bargaining unit being represented, including both union and non-union members. The bill does not extend to higher education collective bargaining, and was also amended in the Senate so that those employees belonging to a religion with a historical objection to joining or financially supporting an employee organization would be permitted to pay that amount to a nonreligious, nonlabor charitable 501(c)3 organization. Twenty-three states already have similar legislation on the books, and the Governor’s bill would make Maryland the twenty-fourth.

The Appropriations Committee is also, of course, responsible for overseeing the Budget process in the House, and does so by considering House Bill 100, the Budget Bill for fiscal year 2010, which is introduced on behalf of the Administration; House Bill 101, the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, which makes reductions and adjustments to balance the budget; and House Bill 102, the Capital Budget, which provides for acquisition, building, planning, renovation, etc. for State projects, and also provides matching funds to organizations for worthwhile projects that contribute to Maryland communities (and I’m pleased that several important improvements in the 43rd District have made their way into this year’s budget, including money for the modernization of the Kirk Avenue bus facility and for three projects at Stadium Place on 33rd Street: the GEDCO Green House, a multipurpose sports field, and the rebuilding of the much-missed community playground).

In the Ways & Means Committee, several bills dealing with elections law and tax credits or exemptions have been noteworthy. House Bill 1179 aims to implement early voting in the State. The constitutional amendment making this possible was approved by Maryland voters in November’s general election, and beginning with the 2010 primary and general elections voters will be able to vote at designated early voting centers beginning on the second Friday before election day. This bill has passed through both chambers of the legislature, and the different versions that emerged from each are being reconciled in conference committee.

Also related to election law, House Bill 893 – which I devoted some time to in my legislative update of March 27th – will alter the requirements for Maryland’s transition to paper-trailer voting so that contract deadlines for purchasing optical-scan machines can be met. As I have said before, this change to voter-verifiable paper records is something I know concerns many of you, and you have made your views known to me in a large number of emails, phone calls, and letters. We in the House of Delegates have passed our version of the bill, and no doubt there will be pressure on the Senate to pass theirs in the next couple of days in order to give the full legislature a chance to deliver it to the Governor’s desk for his signature.

In Baltimore City, the outcome of House Bill 309 – which will extend the Maryland Heritage Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program – is especially important. This credit is a great boon to the City in that it helps make affordable a number of restoration projects that benefit the existing housing stock in our communities. In addition to making those residential projects more affordable, it also encourages the responsible improvement of commercial properties in our business districts, creates jobs for the labor-intensive projects required to properly restore the properties in question, increases property values for surrounding areas, and – as a side benefit – generally promotes the green practice of directing investment toward existing neighborhoods with existing infrastructure. We have unanimously passed the measure in the House of Delegates, and I hope that the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee will bring it to the floor of the Senate for full consideration.

Lastly for Ways & Means, there is House Bill 1215, which would offer an exemption to the Inheritance Tax for domestic partners who jointly own a primary residence. This exemption already exists for spouses and immediate family; extending it to domestic partners would represent one more step toward equality for same-sex couples in Maryland, building on last year’s granting of hospital visitation rights and an exemption from recordation and transfer taxes when adding or removing a domestic partner from a deed of property.

On a similar note, the House Health and Government Operations Committee looked at House Bill 474, which would make transgender individuals – those whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth (whether or not they self-identify as transgender) – a protected class by prohibiting discrimination based on that characteristic. I am a co-sponsor of the bill and strongly support it. Maryland law already prohibits discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of the race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability, and this would rightly extend such protection to gender identity. Baltimore City already has such a protection in place, and it is the right thing to do to ask the entire State of Maryland to follow suit. Unfortunately, neither the House nor the Senate versions of the bill have come out of their respective committees.

Health and Government Operations has, however, been able to act concerning financial assistance for low-income families’ medical needs. House Bill 1069 requires changes in hospital policies in order to provide free and reduced-cost care to such families, and also restricts the ability of hospitals to charge interest on overdue bills. This bill passed through both the House of Delegates and the Senate unanimously.

Health and Government Operations also gave a favorable report to House Bill 503, which establishes the Maryland Commission on Autism. The Commision is charged with making recommendations regarding services for individuals with autism spectrum disorders; developing a statewide plan for a system of training, treatment, and services for individuals with autism; and evaluating ways to promote autism spectrum disorder awareness in the State. The bill also contains reporting requirements so that the General Assembly will be kept informed regarding the Commissions findings. This bill passed unanimously in the House of Delegates and now awaits passage in the Senate.

Many of you have written to me about the possibility of utility re-regulation in Maryland, and the House Economic Matters Committee has been considering a measure, House Bill 1530, that would do just that. The bill would require any new power plants built in the State to be owned by an electric company in the State or a consortium. The intention of this bill is to address the problem of spiking residential utility costs by recognizing that, contrary to situation of non-residential customers classes that can shop around, the available supply for residential customers doesn’t meet our demand. This bill would act on the belief that a return to a regulated electric market is more likely to produce a reliable, affordable system because it allows more direct management of electric production. Also, to be sure re-regulation doesn’t unintentionally limit the State’s efforts to promote alternative energy, exemptions are built in to safeguard innovation in the field. The Senate version of the bill has passed, but House Bill 1530 remains to be reported out of committee. Eyes will certainly be on this bill in the session’s final days.

House Bill 453 was also assigned to Economic Matters, and was drafted to prevent both the termination of electric or gas service to residential customers in extremely cold weather, and electric service in extremely hot weather. Every year we see the devastating results that extreme weather can bring about on those who have been falling behind on their utility bills, especially the elderly, and this bill will help make sure that life-threatening situations are avoided. Some restrictions are already in place to avoid such a scenario, but this bill will go further to prevent cut-offs regardless of the amount of money owed (previously amounts owed over $200 for single service and $300 for double would warrant cut-offs), and will provide for more accurate measurement of the weather conditions in the area in which the utility service is provided. House Bill 453 has passed the House, and is awaiting a final vote in the Senate.

I’ll finish by mentioning several of the most important bills to come through the committee that I chair, Environmental Matters. House Bill 313, or rather its Senate crossfile, Senate Bill 277, looks set to authorize the use of speed monitoring cameras throughout Maryland. The bill would allow speed cameras in highway work zones and school zones, and would allow a citation or warning to be issued for vehicles traveling at least 12 miles per hour over the posted limit. The maximum penalty would be capped at $40, and all local jurisdictions that make use of the cameras would be required to report to the Governor and General Assembly by the end of 2013 with an assessment of the effectiveness of the monitoring systems in promoting public safety. This measure was introduced last year, but to the surprise and disappointment of many, it failed to make it out of conference committee in the final moments of the session. Its progress this year has been similarly noteworthy, with the Senate version of the bill being defeated on the floor of that chamber, only to be reconsidered and passed. After a long consideration in the House of Delegates, it passed in our chamber as well.

House Bill 176, and its crossfile Senate Bill 554, attempt to mitigate the problem of nitrogen leakage into the Chesapeake Bay from faulty or poorly designed septic systems by prohibiting people living in the State Critical Areas from newly installing or repairing faulty septic systems unless they make use of the best available technology for nitrogen removal. The Maryland Department of the Environment will be required to assist homeowners in affording the transition to such systems with funds designed in the Bay Restoration Fund, and will be allowed to implement preferences toward assisting low- and middle-income homeowners. Additionally, the homeowner will be able to take advantage of a subtraction modification to their personal income tax in the amount of the upgrade, minus any Bay Restoration Fund assistance provided. Both versions of the bill passed in their respective chambers, and we in the House of Delegates have passed the Senate version on to the Governor for his signature. This is a vital bill for the Bay’s health, and I am proud to have had a part in ushering it through to passage.

Lastly, I’d like to mention House Bill 297, which was drafted as a legislative means of overturning the Court of Appeals ruling in David Trail, et al. v. Terrapin Run, LLC et al., a decision which opened up a potentially very destructive gap between established planning guidelines and the specific developments allowed by variance in Maryland’s counties. The ruling allowed a very permissive flexibility in regard to county zoning guidelines and their respective county comprehensive plans, and did so by very loosely interpreting the command that they be “consistent with” those plans. The bill in question will explicitly define “consistent” for the purpose of clearing up any confusion. Without such a fix as this bill contains, the comprehensive plans drawn up by Maryland’s counties in an effort to realize Smart Growth strategies would be toothless advisory documents, and many of the priorities Maryland has committed to for protecting the environment and encouraging cost-effective, quality-of-life-enhancing development could be routinely ignored. This bill prevents that, but also avoids becoming a straitjacket; it allows for certain special exceptions while eschewing the broad allowance of the Terrapin Run decision. House Bill 297 has passed both chambers and now waits for the Governor’s signature.

Many more bills could have made it into this update; we deal with a huge number, many of them significant, but I hope this has given you an idea of how some of the major bills that concern our State have made out. Next week I will be able to give you an end-of-session wrap-up, and look forward to reporting on the final results of our 90 days in Annapolis.

Maggie